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The Who - By Numbers CD (album) cover

BY NUMBERS

The Who

 

Proto-Prog

3.52 | 189 ratings

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Finnforest
Special Collaborator
Honorary Collaborator
4 stars "No easy way to be free"

By the mid 1970s Pete Townshend had taken his band to the lofty peaks, only to discover not only didn't it feel as good as it should, but that gravity was creeping in. His singer was barking at him in the press. His drummer was literally dying right in front of them. His own substance abuse was no longer fun and beginning to wreak havoc on his body. He was 30 years old and starting to question what else The Who could possibly accomplish after the exhausting (yet brilliant) Quadrophenia. He feared repeating himself and he loathed the idea of becoming a parody of himself. He was not happy in The Who yet apparently too insecure to leave. While it would be a couple years before Keith Moon would sink the classic Who for him, Townshend somehow managed to take the turbulent situation around him and with it craft the last truly great Who album.

"There ain't no way out!"

While Townshend describes the album as the Who's most "negative,", I don't think that's the right word. Yes, it replaces the grandiosity of Tommy and Quadrophenia with personal honesty in the form of sometimes dark and difficult lyrics, but musically the album ranges from lighthearted to energetic to downright triumphant in feel. The pain comes through in the words but the music remains that which transcends. The songs themselves come off their high horse and offer economical (yet still passionate) playing with an emphasis on wonderful melodies. Every song is a success here with about half the tracks ranking right up there with the band's strongest material. Great guitar work and a strong Daltrey performance are accented by wonderful vocal harmonies and John's fluid bass. "However Much I Booze" takes the rage/fear of Pete falling out of love with his best friend (the bottle) and contrasts it with an almost country flavored acoustic pluck. While classic rockers like "Dreaming from the Waist" and "How Many Friends" are oft mentioned, the plaintive "Imagine a Man" and the downright cuddly "Blue, Red and Grey" give the album real depth. The latter features Pete playing a uke and singing with innocence as if serenading a girlfriend in the moonlight.

"I like every minute of the day..."

It's personal and from the heart, a fresh Who sound devoid of excess, and it allowed the band to find a spot to stand their ground during a difficult period. In some ways the album compares well to "American Beauty" by the Grateful Dead. It was a departure with a somewhat sparser semi-acoustic sound than the band was known for, yet the songwriting and arrangements were among the band's finest. "American Beauty" found more acceptance, perhaps because a large part of The Who audience wasn't ready to tone down the party yet, but "By Numbers" is an album which decades later holds up better than most Who works. It was Townshend finding the perfect overlap between a more mature body of work while still firmly in what I see as his most creative period. Eventually all rockers grow up and release more mature works, but usually by that time the real spark and stardust has been replaced by a more boring middle aged "career sound." There's nothing boring or phoned-in about the ironically titled "By Numbers." I find the material here more compelling than Who's Next or Tommy and would place it behind only Quadrophenia if ranking their albums. Solid 4 stars, maybe a bit more.

Finnforest | 4/5 |

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